Long before I read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, I was drawn to a little paperback in fourth grade because it was about a great scientist (George Washington Carver) who had a secret garden in the woods as a kid. I had a secret garden too and assumed I was the only child on the planet to ever engage in such a folly. Heck, I even remember landscaping one of our childhood forts in a pine forest in Longview. I can’t imagine what the other kids thought. Apparently, I didn’t care. These were the beginnings of what I now refer to (at least in my mind) as “woodscaping.”
I’m always dabbling in my woods by planting something native here or there, limbing up a tree, chain sawing something I don’t want, or eradicating some invasive exotic. I know as a naturalist I should leave things alone, but as a horticulturist, I can’t help it. So over the Thanksgiving holidays I actually started (technically restarted) a bonafide “landscape design” project…in the rough, literally.
It all started around ten years ago when friend Diane Avriett gave me a split bois d’arc log, planed smooth on one side. She was moving to Arkansas and it was too heavy to take with her. It stayed in my barn for a while before I decided what to do with it. Since “horse apple” (Maclura pomifera) wood is known for being very hard and long lasting, I hired my friend, fellow naturalist, and master wood worker Larry Shelton to make me a bench from it.
My original 12-acre property has three trails incorporated into it: the pine savanna trail, the maple walk, and the “Master Naturalist” trail along the creek that I rarely have time
to use anymore. I’ve always considered the first two, “Master Gardener” trails, since one doesn’t have to be raised by wolves to use them. The back of these 12 acres is bordered by a pretty little creek with steep banks. Each corner has a pretty view. The prettiest view (the north end) is from a steep slope and what at the time wasn’t my property when I was hunting a home for my bench. So I chose a spot on the south end. If one had time or chose to sit there (I never did), they could view the creek headed south towards the Attoyac, Angelina, Neches, and finally the Gulf of Mexico.
Occasionally I’d wander down there, until a large water oak tree along the banks came crashing down, taking a southern sugar maple with it. Although the bench survived, it was totally hidden for years and essentially forgotten. Now, fast-forward to 2020. Greg is married, commutes 3 hours to and from work each day, is back in school, has writing deadlines and paperwork that never ends, and is doing his best to avoid Covid-19 and therapy. So as I’m walking the dogs enjoying the decent sugar maple color this year; we wander down to check out the hidden bench. I quickly realize that with a little chain saw work, the gradually decaying fallen tree could be cut, along with the other trees that have sprouted, to breathe much needed new life into the bench. The bench needed me and I needed the bench. But every plan needs a design and every design needs a plan.
My five basic design principles are: dominance, scale, balance, repetition, and unity; and are used for all design work, be it fashion, floral, interior, or landscape. Design is design.
The first order of business was exposing the original vista which was to be the focal point (dominance). Remember, only one focal point per view. To accentuate this view, I’d frame it with an existing sugar maple and a young hickory that had sprouted. If the hickory fails, there’s another sugar maple behind it that will work too. I also gave the bench a nice coat of orange oil and tung oil.
Due to large trees and much borrowed landscape in view, the scale of this project is naturally large. However, that large scale has to be carefully tied to the human sized bench with my everexpanding human sized body sitting in it. A large clump of yaupon holly behind the bench, a clump of native “switch cane” bamboo, and lots of native shrubs, small, trees, and medium sized trees will help the visual transition.
In my book, all main landscape views should be balanced, either symmetrically or asymmetrically. This creekside view is asymmetrical, with one-third of the view to the left of the creek containing large trees, and two-thirds of the view to the right containing a large bottomland meadow, the sky, and the evening sunset.
I’m convinced that repetition is the most important design principle of all and I’ve got lots of it, including many trees and a bench made from one, an expansive groundcover of leaves and pine straw, native bamboo, and the golden yellow of the southern sugar maples in the fall. Anything that doesn’t fall into this natural palette of materials and colors is jarring and out of place…like that neon orange barricade barrel that washed into the meadow during a past flood that I simply have to eliminate one day! Remember, my focal point is the creek meandering into the distance, not a plastic orange barrel.
Unity is the hardest design principle to teach, but if you incorporate the other four, you will have it. Unity means everything belongs and fits together. One way to have unity is to give your landscape a theme name and stick with it. If it doesn’t fit, you must a quit.
A common concept in many fine landscapes is the use of different rooms, just like in our homes. Since this is my little secret woodland “man cave,” I put a bamboo “door” on it coming down the path, so visitors (intruders) will know they are entering a different space.
I will keep the clump of yaupons sheared to provide a little formality to help tie the rigid, straight-lined bench into the naturalistic riparian surroundings.